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Thursday, October 30, 2014

From Gaines to Strickland: Professors share black history at MU

Michael Middleton spoke about his experiences with discrimination while a student at MU.

Feb. 12, 2014

Black History Month began Feb. 1, and with it came a large number of events.

One event, titled “Rediscovering the Civil Rights History of Missouri and Columbia,” took place Thursday. Historians, professors and leaders in Columbia’s black community shared their experiences with racism and the civil rights movement.

At the MIZ-BLK event, MU political science professors James Endersby and William Horner shared their research about Lloyd Gaines, the subject of their book project.

In 1936, Gaines applied for the School of Law, but his application was turned down when the registrar realized he had attended an exclusively black college. With the help of the NAACP, he filed a lawsuit calling for the state to recognize that this was not “separate but equal.”

The case, Gaines v. Canada, made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which found that Missouri had to accommodate Gaines, whether that be by desegregating MU’s School of Law or by making another one available. The state chose the second option, opening a new law school in a building abandoned by a beauty college.

Before his legal team could protest that this, too, as unequal, Gaines disappeared. No one knows if he was killed or if he started a new life to escape his newfound fame, but either way, Horner said, his story was “a tragedy.”

Endersby and Horner both said the obscurity of Gaines’ story is part of what drew them to research it.

On the campus where he never attended law school, Gaines is commemorated in one visible way. The Gaines/Oldham Black Culture Center is named, in part, after him.

“Very few people know who Lloyd Gaines is,” Horner said.

It’s exactly these kinds of stories, though, the panelists said, that inspired them to confront prejudice in their activism and careers.

Michael Middleton, deputy chancellor and professor at the MU School of Law and one of the first black students to attend MU’s law school, said that when he first came to Columbia, he found “a fairly segregated campus and a fairly segregated community.”

White students shouted racial epithets at Middleton from a car on his first day on campus. Originally a music student, he eventually quit Marching Mizzou when he got tired of playing “Dixie” at halftime while Kappa Alpha fraternity members waved a Confederate flag.

Middleton, though, was inspired by activists — from his friends in law school to Martin Luther King Jr. — and stayed in Columbia, helping to found the fraternity Alpha Phi Alpha and the Legion of Black Collegians.

Arvah E. Strickland, director of the black studies program before it became a department, is remembered as another significant figure.

“I came here in 1999, and at that time there were about 25 endowed chairs across the United States that were established for and by people of African descent,” said Wilma King, the professor who currently holds the Strickland Endowed Professorship in African-American History and Black Studies.

King said the position has provided her with a unique opportunity to research the history of African-American women and children.

Other panelists included Darlene Grant, the assistant principal of Battle High School; Granny’s House Director Pam Ingram; and Mary Beth Brown of the black studies department.

Graduate student Portia Britt, president of the MU Black Law Students Association, said many MU students are unaware of this aspect of its history.

“I think a lot of people don’t realize the sacrifices that were made,” Britt said.

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